One of the unsung classic tragedies of American cinema, Make Way for Tomorrow is far less well known than director Leo McCarey’s other film from the same year, The Awful Truth. When McCarey won best director for that film, he famously accepted by saying “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture!” A sly joke, but he was right.
The film is about family and communication, subjects relevant to just about everyone but which tend to be underexplored in cinema as they relate to the elderly. Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi), faced with depression-era job loss and lacking income, find themselves with nowhere to go and call their adult children for help. One child agrees to house the two for the long-term, initially, but asks for three months to convince her husband. In the meantime, two other children agree to each take one; Lucy moves to New York with her son and his family while Bart moves three hundred miles away with a daughter. Soon enough, tensions emerge as the parents prove difficult for their ever-busy children. All the while, the child who had agreed to house the two indefinitely tries, half-heartedly, to convince her husband to no avail and soon gives up. It’s easy to see how Make Way for Tomorrow was an inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, the greatest film ever made about family.
Things begin with unease, and they only grow wearier. There’s a tension in the childrens’ eyes – they genuinely want to help their parents even as they deal themselves with depression-era tensions. The film is unflinching and empathetic, not striving for sympathy (in fact, when looking at the lush mise-en-scene of the children’s houses and their apparent immaculacy, it seems to mock their perceived personal economic woes), but for understanding. They don’t dislike their parents, nor do they want to throw them out into the cold, but they are caught up with their lives in a way that prevents more than momentary compassion. The parents for their part understand and feel burdensome, but also have no other choice. Beyond this, they’re caught up in their own personal loneliness brought on not only by having to, and being unable to, conform to their children’s whims, but by the fact that they can no longer see each other. They tell themselves over and over that they will soon see each other, but their eyes convey that they aren’t so sure. As the film moves on it moves from a statement of hope to a bitter reminder of their need to lie to themselves to keep on going.
The film’s most touching scene has Bondi tell her son she would rather go to a nursing home for the elderly, right as he was about to ask her to do the same. Although it’s unsaid, we see in his eyes that he realizes she’s seen the mail they got from the nursing home and wants to feign for them, or must feign for herself, her own support. The film is filled with little, universal moments like this, the kind we don’t often see in films but which strike us like a bullet to the heart. It’s hard, watching the film, not to sympathize with the elderly parents as our main characters, but the film doesn’t render them lovable pastiches. In fact, it’s entirely easy to see ourselves in the childrens’ place, and we wonder how we would react in this situation. The central tension of the film is that we want to demonize the children, but McCarey refuses to, and we worry they are us, caught up in the hustle-and-bustle of modernism. For their seeming lack of empathy, we peek into their personal lives and see their legitimate problems only exacerbated by their out-of-touch parents. We come to ask: what other choice do the children have?
If the film is honest enough to understand the aching melancholy of humanity and family, it’s also human enough to see the comedic irony in every-day life, a comedy that doesn’t sit atop the situation but which naturally emerges out of people who can’t live together struggling to survive in close quarters. The humor, of course, is anxious and the laughs underline tragedy with an aching grin, but McCarey is too natural a comedy director to turn the film into a downward spiral of depression. He’s aiming for the impression of everyday life. He stakes his claim on little moments, and this includes above all moments we can’t decide how to react to, but which we must nonetheless: a wistful old mother fighting off loneliness by disrupting, inadvertently, a large card game, an older man struggling to read without his glasses, and all other manner of perpetual dysfunction between the elderly and the middle-aged. Later, the elderly couple goes out for a day in the city and gets caught up in struggling to remember the day they married. McCarey drags it on for an interminable amount of time, but there’s an undercurrent of brittle humor that embellishes rather than undermining the tragedy. These moments are sad and knowing, but they also understand the ways in which tragedy and comedy exist in tension with one another. The humor doesn’t come from the elderly couple’s cuteness, but from their eternal sadness and the absurd fact that they no longer seem to belong in this society and can’t but come to realize it.
The film isn’t a visual masterwork that signals the work of an auteur, but it boasts its fair share of subtle touches. A mid-film scene depicts the central couple standing outside looking in a glass store window, but the camera is positioned from the inside of the store looking out at them through the glass. People inside look out at them and comment on their demeanor. They’re together again, and outside in the big city, on a sort of fantasy second honeymoon, but the film sees them here as still trapped behind the glass of modernization and changing times, static objects for Baudelarian wanderers to observe and analyze. They can walk anywhere they want, even into their past by trying to relive it, but they can’t truly escape their age.
As the film lulls itself into conclusion, we’re aware of two things: lies make life easier and even possible, and the unstated realization of a lie as a lie is humanity’s eternal tragedy. As the couple enjoys their time on the town, they enjoy themselves, more than they have in the film so far. But we’re not fooled into thinking they’ve forgotten what is soon to come. They don’t speak about it, of course, because the happiness they face is both possible only as a lie and all the truer for the same reason. They meet various people who help them through their day, and who the couple take solace in, but the happiness is also the product of a sort of patronizing – they find the couple nice and amusing for their gentle age, and they do so only because they don’t actually have to live with them. This is a deeply romantic film with the eternal melodrama of classic Hollywood, but it’s thoroughly aware the whole affair is achingly artificial. And, crucially, real because it is so artificial, because it explores both the need to construct happiness where it may not exist and the desire to perform acceptance and compassion even when nagging nervousness and bitterness writhes beneath. For the audience, as for these two figures who keep lying to each other throughout the film, this doesn’t “lessen” the truth of the happiness – it gives it roundness, for the lies are birthed by humanity and given to love. If the title of the film sounds like a far-flung science fiction, McCarey’s film heartbreakingly and elegantly rhymes with the present, and any time past or future.